Women in Iran could face significant restrictions on their use of contraceptives and be further excluded from the labour market unless they have had a child if two proposed laws are approved, says a new report by Amnesty International published today. You Shall Procreate: Attacks on Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Iran details the extreme lengths the Iranian authorities are going to in order to encourage repeated childbearing in a misguided attempt to boost the country’s declining population figures.
“The proposed laws will entrench discriminatory practices and set the rights of women and girls in Iran back by decades. The authorities are promoting a dangerous culture in which women are stripped of key rights and viewed as baby-making machines rather than human beings with fundamental rights to make choices about their own bodies and lives,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“The bills reinforce discriminatory stereotypes of women, and mark an unprecedented move by the state to interfere in people’s personal lives. In their zealous quest to project an image of military might and geopolitical strength by attempting to increase birth rates, Iran’s authorities are trampling all over the fundamental rights of women - even the marital bed is not out of bounds.”
The Bill to Increase Fertility Rates and Prevent Population Decline (Bill 446) outlaws voluntary sterilization, which is believed to be the second most common method of modern contraception in Iran, and blocks access to information about contraception, denying women the opportunity to make informed decisions about having children. Coupled with the elimination of state funding for Iran’s family planning program, which had, up until 2012, provided millions of women in the country with access to affordable modern contraception, the move would undoubtedly result in greater numbers of unwanted pregnancies, forcing more women to seek illegal and unsafe abortions. Lack of access to condoms, which were previously dispended through urban clinics and rural health houses funded by Iran’s Family and Population Planning Programme, would also lead to a rise in sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
The bill was passed in parliament with an overwhelming majority in August 2014 and is undergoing amendments as recommended by the Guardian Council, a body which needs to approve it before it can become law.
“By abolishing family planning programs and blocking access to vital sexual and reproductive health services the authorities would be exposing women to serious health risks, and violating their human rights,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“It is vital that the authorities maintain funding for comprehensive family planning programmes to ensure that all women can access quality contraceptive goods, services and information.”
Without such access, women will either have to carry their pregnancies to term when it is not their choice to do so; or risk their life and health by undergoing unsafe, clandestine abortions.
Unsafe abortions are among the leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2008 unsafe abortions led to the deaths of 47,000 women and caused disabilities for five million women.
The Comprehensive Population and Exaltation of Family Bill (Bill 315), which is due to be discussed in parliament next month, would further entrench gender-based discrimination, particularly against women who choose not to or are unable to marry or have children. The bill instructs all private and public entities to prioritize, in sequence, men with children, married men without children and married women with children when hiring for certain jobs. It also makes divorce more difficult and discourages police and judicial intervention in family disputes opening women up to increased risks of domestic violence.
“The Iranian authorities must recognize that introducing such legislation could have devastating consequences for women trapped in abusive relationships,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Under Iran’s civil code women seeking a divorce already need to prove they are facing “unbearable hardship,” while men can divorce without giving any reason. Men also have the exclusive right to have at least two permanent wives in polygamous marriages and as many wives as they wish in “temporary” (sigheh) marriages. Bill 315 would incentivize judges to rule against divorce by offering them bonuses based on how many of their cases result in marital reconciliation.
“The bills send a message that women are good for nothing more than being obedient housewives and creating babies and suggests they do not have the right to work or pursue a career until they have fulfilled that primary role and duty. The bills contradict the reality of Iranian women who have at least until recently constituted the majority of university graduates, and around 17% of the country work force,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Despite claims by Iran’s authorities, including statements by President Hasan Rouhani that men and women in Iran are treated equally, in reality this is far from the truth. Sexual violence and discrimination against women in Iran is rife and women in Iran are denied equal rights with respect to marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, travel, and even in their choice of clothing. Iran’s Penal Code penalizes women and girls as early as nine years old who fail to cover their hair with a headscarf and comply with compulsory dress codes with imprisonment or a cash fine. These laws are regularly used by the police to harass and detain women in public for their appearance and clothing.
According to Iran’s existing Civil Code, a woman would not be entitled to spousal maintenance if she refuses to comply with the “duties of marriage,” which can include refusing to have sex with her husband or leaving the house without permission.
A woman’s testimony in court is valued at half that of a man in legal proceedings and reparations paid for killing or causing injury to a woman are half those payable for same harms to a man. The age of criminal responsibility for girls is just under nine years old but just under 15 years for a boy. Rape within marriage and domestic violence are not recognized as criminal offences. Engaging in lesbian sex is punishable by 100 lashes with a fourth time conviction resulting in the death penalty. Early and forced marriages are common with 41,226 married girls between the ages of 10 and 14, according to the 2013-2014 annual report by the National Organization for Civil Registration, and at least 201 girls under the age of 10 are married. At some universities women are barred from studying certain subjects, ranging from engineering to English literature, as a result of quotas that seek to reverse advances made in the number and proportion of female university students. They also face restrictions on watching sports in public stadiums.
“The Iranian authorities are resorting to the law to try to curb women’s advances in the country and seek to confine them to the roles of mothers and wives. Instead of adding to the catalogue of discriminations Iranian women face, the authorities must recognize that women are human beings with fundamental rights, and rescind such discriminatory laws,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“The authorities already seek to control what Iranian women wear, where they work and what they study. Now they are interfering with their private lives by seeking to control their bodies and tell them how many children to have. Both proposed bills must be scrapped and funding for quality family planning services must be restored. Women must be able to live in dignity without such intrusive infringements on their fundamental rights and freedoms.”